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The Crusader

The Crusader

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Add This - The Crusader

Written by Michael Alexander EisnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michael Alexander Eisner

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • On Sale: January 7, 2003
  • Price: $13.00
  • ISBN: 978-0-385-72141-7 (0-385-72141-2)
EXCERPT

I

A Man of Sorrows

The tenth day of July, the Year of Our Lord 1275

The rain had let up. I leaned forward and glanced out the front of the wagon. The pink stones of the monastery glowed against the night. A gray mist rose from the frozen earth. It was past midnight.

I had been waiting several hours for our reunion. In truth, I had been waiting several years--six years--only I had imagined it under different circumstances.

The porter came out to meet the carriage. He had been recently admitted to the clerical state, tonsured with a smooth razor so that his baldpate gleamed against the moonlight.

"Welcome to Poblet," he said.

"What is your name, Brother?" I asked.

"Silva," he responded, "Brother Silva from Cerdanya."

I introduced myself and told him to take me to the cell of Francisco de Montcada. He looked down without responding.

It had been a long journey, and I was irritable and impatient. "Do you understand, Brother Silva?"

"Yes, Brother Lucas," he said, "but Father Adelmo has decreed that no visitors shall enter the crusader's cell."

"I have in my hand a letter with the seal of Archbishop Sancho of Tarragona," I said. "It gives me custody of Francisco and charge of his exorcism."

"Perhaps I can fetch Father Adelmo," Brother Silva said, "you can discuss the matter with him."

"No, Brother Silva," I said, "I will see Francisco now."

Reluctantly, Brother Silva escorted me into the church. I could smell the familiar incense of matins, the first prayer of morning. I took a deep breath--the pungent aroma awakened my senses. For me, it is the smell of God, the smell of home, the only home I have ever known. The monks had already assembled, waiting for the Abbot to begin their chanting. Several yawned, the younger boys rubbing their eyes to shake the sleep from them. As I made my way down the center aisle, every monk in the chapel turned to stare at me. One of the older monks tried to draw the attention of the others by beginning part of the liturgy, but the congregants ignored him.

When I reached the stone Cross at the foot of the dais, I kneeled to say a silent prayer--Holy Mary, bless me and keep me from evil. Please give me strength to perform my mission. I crossed myself , stood, and proceeded with Brother Silva to a corner door, where we exited the church into the cloister. We walked around the square, passing several writing stations between columns. The monks had moved their manuscripts to the stone bench under the walkway to protect the parchment from rain. I took notice of the calligraphy, the bold strokes, the confident curves.

At the corner of the courtyard, we passed into the tower. Brother Silva lit a torch and ascended the spiral staircase. I followed, trying to keep pace, but the boy soon disappeared and the bright light faded, leaving behind straggling flickers, and then darkness.

I felt my way gently up the winding steps. My sandals slid on the cool stone, and I tried to steady myself on the narrow banister. One step, then another, and another, until I had established a rhythm, and the pounding in my chest subsided. I reached the top of the staircase where Brother Silva was waiting. I had intended to chastise the boy for his haste, but my attention was diverted to the latched door just a few feet away.

"Are you ready, Brother Lucas?" he asked.

The flame illuminated one side of his face--beardless, anxious, uncertain. I hesitated for an instant before nodding my head.

The room was bare, except for a wooden cross hanging on the far wall. Starlight fell through a small window and cast a strange, unearthly glimmer in the cell. A piece of stale bread covered with cockroaches interrupted the play of light on the stone floor. In the shadows, a human figure stirred. He was sitting slumped on a pile of straw. As I entered the cell, a foul stench of excrement and sweat assaulted me. I withdrew a cloth from my cassock and held it over my nose and mouth. Then I approached the person to get a better look. He was chained by the wrist to an iron ring embedded in the wall and wore a tattered robe that barely covered his emaciated frame. His brown hair had grown long and unruly, his beard chaotic. His blue eyes looked out vacantly. His outer appearance had altered much, but I still recognized him.

"He has not talked since his arrival here," Brother Silva said. "Sometimes in his sleep, he will mutter words but they are always unintelligible. Many of the monks believe he speaks a secret dialect of the devil. They fear the evil spell."

I too was afraid, afraid of the demons that had taken hold of Francisco, afraid of the awesome power of the devil that he could so humble such a man as Francisco. I had an impulse to flee. I clutched the Cross hanging from my neck, and tried to stifle the dread rising from my stomach.

Remember who you are. Remember your mission. Remember your station.

Two steps into the darkness, and I reached out to this apparition. I placed my hand on his temple and moved it slowly across his cheek and down to his chin. When I pulled my hand away, my fingers were covered with phlegm and grime.

A gust of cold wind blew through the small window and stung my face. I took a step back, and I felt Brother Silva's hand on my shoulder.

"He is one of the lost cases," Brother Silva said, "Father Adelmo has tried for many weeks to exorcise the demons. He has bled him, burned him, punctured him, even baptized him again. To no avail."

I reached for the chain that bound Francisco. My eyes scanned the links down to his wrist that was caked with dry blood.

Brother Silva felt uncomfortable with my silence and probably some uneasiness with the conditions in which Francisco was held.

"Father Adelmo ordered that he be chained to the wall. It is for his own protection, Brother Lucas."

I said nothing. My mind was whirling with images from our life together at Santes Creus--the rusted iron gate of the monastery, the purple flowers surrounding the cistern, the oak table where we took our meals in perfect silence.

I dropped the chain and brushed aside Francisco's hair in order to see his face more clearly. He seemed much older than his twenty-seven years. His blue eyes, translucent, reflected nothing. Creases fanned out from the corner of his eyes, dark ridges carving a desolate path that faded into his temples. His lips, gray and thin, parted slightly, as if he were whispering some grievous secret from his sojourns. His cheeks had grown gaunt, the skin above his beard pale and bloodless. His sideburns extended out wildly, encroaching down his face where they met his hard jaw, sullened, protruding from his beard like a worn stone, unflinching amidst the tempest.

"Francisco, it's me, Lucas." I repeated his name several times. He did not respond.

"Brother Lucas, the smell is unavoidable," Brother Silva said, "Father Adelmo forbids the monks to enter without his permission. We have done our best to . . ."

I raised my hand, and Brother Silva stopped speaking. I was not here to judge the boy or the other monks. His chatter was breaking my concentration as I scrutinized Francisco's face, searching for some sign of life, something recognizable from our past.

I found nothing.

Brother Silva sneezed. I offered him my cloth. When I looked back at Francisco he was gazing at me. Our eyes met for several seconds before he glanced away.

"Did you know him well, Brother Lucas?"

"He was my friend," I said.

I took several deep breaths. The stale and putrid air in the cell provided no relief. Indeed, my legs weakened. I was choking. I turned and stepped out into the corridor. Brother Silva followed, closing the door behind us.

"Are you well, Brother Lucas?" he asked.

I leaned over, placing my hands on my thighs for support.

"The world has turned upside down, Brother Silva."

II

Santes Creus

I met Francisco eleven years ago. He arrived at the monastery in Santes Creus at the end of summer, the Year of Our Lord 1265. He was sixteen, one year older than I. Abbot Pedro had told us of his coming, the son of a great Baron, a Montcada by blood and name.

The nobility sometimes send their first-born sons to the monasteries for a prescribed period--usually three years--to gain an education before assuming the family mantel. Cistercian monasteries generally prohibit the presence of such temporary visitors, called oblates. The path of perfection--the path of Our Savior--requires an all-consuming commitment, an infinite devotion. Abbots can make exceptions, though. And Francisco was an exceptional case.

With bloodied fingers and unwavering faith, the first Cistercian brothers in Iberia carved God's sanctuary at Santes Creus out of the wilderness over one-hundred years ago. But faith is seldom sufficient. The construction and maintenance of temples dedicated to promoting and reflecting the spiritual glory of Christ's Kingdom requires a more temporal funding. And the Montcada family provided the financing from the beginning. Through this sacrifice, many members of the family have assured their place in Paradise and have earned an eternal resting-place in the monastery.

Lest anyone forget our patrons, the monks pass the Montcada crypt seven times a day. Hewn into the stone wall just to the right of the door leading to the church, the crypt holds the remains of Garsenda de Provence and Guillem de Montcada, great-grandparents of Francisco. During his lifetime, Guillem was the most powerful of the Crown's vassals. He led the force that captured the island of Majorca from the infidels in the Year of Our Lord 1229.

The details of Guillem's martyrdom are well known to all in the Kingdom of Aragon. The family commissioned a song to commemorate Guillem's achievements. I learned the ballad during my first year as a novice. I can still recite the verses. One of the Saracens drove a stake into Guillem's side. His entrails hanging from his stomach, Guillem continued to direct the Christian forces from his mount. He fell dead just outside the gates of the City of La Palma.

Guillem must have seen the ghost of the White Knight Saint George and felt the impending victory before letting his soul ascend to heaven. The White Knight rode horseback over the enemy defenses, striking terror in the hearts of the infidels and causing a diversion that enabled our soldiers to breach the City's walls. Once inside, Christ's soldiers unleashed a divine retribution on the City's inhabitants. They say that most of the Muslims, men, women and children, were killed within two hours of the breach. It was a scene of such savage butchery, that, but for its divine inspiration, some might well mistake its noble purpose for the devil's work.

Needless to say, Abbot Pedro and every other member of the monastery eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Montcada heir. The Abbot sent for painters from the Barcelona guild to refinish the facade of the church and several areas in the main cloister, including the Montcada crypt with the family's coat of arms, a red shield with seven bezants, gold coins from Byzantium.

I was praying silently, walking around the cloister when I came upon one of the craftsman retouching the gold leaf on the crypt.

"Why are there seven gold pieces on the Montcada shield?" I asked the guildsman. I had always admired the design, but wondered about the significance of the seven coins.

"The Montcadas are rich," he answered, without looking up from his work.

"Yes, I know," I said, "but why not three bezants to signify the Holy Trinity?"

"They're very rich," he said.

Indeed, Francisco was an exceptional case.

When the young heir finally arrived, I was in the Abbot's quarters entering figures in the monastery's financial ledgers. Perhaps I should explain. Every two years, Abbot Pedro chose one monk with unusual promise to act as his personal assistant. It was a great honor to hold such a position of responsibility, which I assumed in my thirteenth year. In this position, I spent the early afternoon--between the offices of sext and nones--in the Abbot's quarters. I drafted his correspondence. I kept minutes of important meetings. I reminded the Abbot of feast days according to the liturgical calendar. I counted and sorted the coins in the treasury--like cool, spring water sifting through my fingers. My reappointment for another two-year term when I was fifteen reflected Abbot Pedro's recognition of my devotion and discretion. Abbot Pedro frequently confided in me his intimate thoughts concerning other members of the monastery.

As instructed, the porter escorted Francisco to the Abbot's quarters.

"Come in, son," Abbot Pedro said to Francisco, who seemed reluctant to advance beyond the doorway, "Welcome to Santes Creus."

It was a scene we had replayed many times. Greeting the new arrivals. Some tall, some short, some fat, some thin. But always the same expression--a smug complacency, a keen awareness of the prerogatives of their birthright as sons of the high nobility. And perhaps a slight sneer to reflect the bitter injustice of their situation if they were second or third-born sons compelled to take the cloth. Noble families gave these sons to the Church to avoid a division of the patrimony. In the Church, these sons would inherit no land and yet lead lives worthy of nobility that would redound to the spiritual benefit of their parents.

I rose as Francisco approached. I could see immediately that he was different. Francisco was smiling absently. Actually, it was half a smile. The left side of his mouth raised, the left eye crinkled tenderly. The other half of Francisco's face somber, the right eye focused inward as if on some private sorrow. This disjunction gave Francisco's countenance a brooding, ironic impression as if he were amused by his own suffering.

Abbot Pedro seemed momentarily confounded by Francisco's demeanor. The Abbot examined Francisco for a full minute before speaking.

"I am grateful," the Abbot finally said, "that the Lord has seen fit to place you under my care." The heavy weight of Francisco's vision seemed directed toward the window. The Abbot moved to the left in an effort to intercept Francisco's stare.

"As you well know, Francisco," the Abbot continued, "the monastery owes its existence to the largesse of your family. The Montcadas have always recognized the sacred work performed by the Cistercian Order.

"Our Benedictine brothers and sisters," Abbot Pedro began his standard speech to new arrivals, "have developed a predilection for gold and silver. And yet Christ was a man of stone and wood, Francisco. The Cistercians seek to restore the purity of Saint Benedict's original vision. Our Benedictine brothers wear black habits. We wear unbleached white--a symbol of the pristine nature of Christ's word and our mission. Our buildings are austere and simple. No superfluous decoration mars the walls and creates distraction from our lives of prayer and contemplation. We shun the new fashion of installing colored windows in our churches. If God's light is perfect, why distort the sublime rays?"


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from The Crusader by Michael Alexander Eisner Copyright © 2001 by Michael Alexander Eisner. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.